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What If Place Matters

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The Business Innovation Factorys BIF Summit this September 17–18, in Providence, RI marked 10 years of Storytellers and random collisions of unusual suspects pushing leaders in business, education, healthcare, and government to forgo tweaks in favor of transformative change.

I had a chance to chat with BIF10 Storyteller, Christopher Gergen about his thoughts on innovation, social entrepreneurship, and how to encourage more of both.

There were two words Gergen stressed during our conversation that transformed the way I think about the future of social entrepreneurship.

Place matters.

Speaking with Gergen helped me realize why we should never overestimate the power and potential every community possesses to fuel innovation and entrepreneurial growth.

Whether it’s through his leadership as the CEO of Forward Impact or as a Fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship(CASE) at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Gergen is committed to making the challenge of entrepreneurship a community effort by creating community-based strategies to develop and scale high-impact social entrepreneurs.

Gergen believes the power of social entrepreneurship “lies within its intersection between personal transformation and transformative impact.”

But in order to tap into this power and benefit fully from its impact, entrepreneurship development must be approached as the system its. This system relies on confident, competent entrepreneurs taking risks to start businesses as well as the resources required to support them.

Communities have both; they’re not always connected.

Starting Up and Staying Put

Gergen isn’t simply concerned with “starting up”; he’s also concerned with “staying put.”

Since entrepreneurship is a driving force in economic development, Gergen is passionate about helping entrepreneurs stay in their communities.

What if every person with an entrepreneurial idea left his or her community to launch it?

One way or another, communities are contributors to the people and ideas that come out of them. Why shouldn’t they also profit when those ideas become businesses that create jobs and generate revenue?

The flight of entrepreneurs is a concern voiced by community leaders around the world.

What if entrepreneurs didn’t have to leave their communities? What if entrepreneurs didn’t have to choose between their community and the success of their startup?

What if many entrepreneurs want to stay put?

What if the most efficient way for entrepreneurs to access the resources they need to scale is by connecting them to the resources that already exist within their communities—as opposed to having them flee for Silicon Valley, Austin, New York, and the other usual suspects of startup hubs?

Thinking and Doing

Fortunately for the future of grassroots entrepreneurship, Gergen is the best kind of leader: he’s not just a thinker; he’s a doer.

Gergen’s approach is simple. It’s grounded in the belief that place matters. He stresses the importance of creating pipelines between colleges and their communities. This allows for these seeds of entrepreneurship and innovation to take root and reach their full potential, rather than blowing (or withering) away.

Gergen points to the Center for Creative Leadership as an example of an existing talent pipeline that focuses on generating a clear outcome: impact measured by the creation of innovative solutions to complex problems facing our world.

But this pipeline is just the beginning. According to Gergen:

“Communities need to show what the world needs in order to help entrepreneurs and innovators channel their energy and ideas. By creating robust environments for entrepreneurs and innovators to thrive, communities can capture their energy and keep them from leaving

“Before a community can create these robust environments for entrepreneurs and innovators to thrive, there needs to be a focus on creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem to help provide the competence and confidence for entrepreneurs to embrace big ideas.”

Gergen makes it clear that communities need strategies to create these entrepreneurial ecosystems. This is why he’s been active in starting several entrepreneurial programs in his home state of North Carolina.

Bull City Forward provides support for social entrepreneurs in Durham and the Triangle region to become change agents in order to “generate sustainable prosperity, increase human dignity, quality of life and happiness, and improve the natural environment of Durham and beyond.”

The Think House (think The Real World, but for emerging entrepreneurs instead of fast-fading reality TV stars) he co-founded is another example of how Gergen is proving communities can create better lives by embracing the entrepreneurial life.

The Think House delivers tangible actions by taking recent graduates and plugging them in strategically to local resources so in addition to gaining access to the environment, network, resources, and skills they require to build a profitable and scalable company, they can emerge from the experience thinking, “why would I want to go anywhere else?”

What if the secret to sustainable, economic development in communities across the planet is as simple as helping emerging entrepreneurs connect with the resources that already exist within their communities?

What if every community has the potential to become a hotbed of entrepreneurship?

What if, we just need to focus on two words? Place matters.

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